Publishing Perspectives tells us of a Guardian report identifying a 25% expansion in the length of the average book (whatever that means) from 1999 and 2014, an increase which the survey’s commissioner blames on the e-book. He suggests that because it’s hard to see that an e-book is long (War and Peace looks identical to The Kreutzer Sonata on your Kindle) we aren’t being put off by the big ones. It’s not entirely clear to me why this size disguise would mean that authors would want to rush in to write more words. Doesn’t it take longer to write a longer book? The argument in fact sounds to me like a bit of post hoc ergo propter hoc, and support to my cynicism is provided by the aside in the Publishing Perspectives post that films have also grown 20% longer over the same timespan.

I have always maintained that the invention of word-processing is what gave us a jump in the length of books. No longer did you need to retype the whole manuscript if you added a sentence on page 6. You just added it and the job automatically reflowed and became that much longer. Out of the window went the old fashioned idea that to fit the extra sentence in on page 6 you might need to make a balancing reduction before the end of page 7: you were free to add stuff ad libitum. But now apparently it’s e-books doing it to us. I wonder if some grumpy, late-nineteenth-century production manager would mutter that the invention of the typewriter had lead to an irresponsible expansion in the length of books: in the good old days having to write the whole thing out in pen and ink meant that you were parsimonious with your words . . .

But who’s going to tell me that there were no long books back then? If Mr Finlayson of Flipsnack were able to demonstrate to me that 21st century books were on average longer than 20th century books, which in turn were longer than 19th century, which than 18th, which than 17th etc., etc., I might be prepared to consider his point. But he doesn’t, and he can’t: so why spend money on such a survey? Another argument justified by his findings (given the cinema factoid) is that somehow in the 21st century we crave long-form entertainment. But even that doesn’t seem right:  what about all that handwringing about how our attention spans are all shot to hell, and we are can’t focus on anything longer than 140 characters. Get over it: some books are long; some books are short.

Nate Hoffelder follows up with a Digital Reader post hacking away the data basis of the survey. As he says if one really wanted to know about this one could “run a database search on, say, Amazon’s book listings, sort by publication year, and find the average book length for each year”. That would of course be a laborious way of proving that what we intuit: that the length of books varies about a mean without any influence from the date of publication.

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